Sunday, January 13, 2002

Church merger first for Ohio

Two denominations form one congregation

By Richelle Thompson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Eileen and Larry Findlay in the sanctuary of Westminister Presbyterian Church, where they were married in 1984.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
        Church politics can rival the partisan wranglings in Washington, D.C., but two Delhi Township congregations decided to put aside their differences and join in what is believed to be a first for Ohio.

        St. John's United Church of Christ and Westminster Presbyterian crossed denominational lines to merge this month into a single church. The newly merged church had its first official services last Sunday, and today members will elect church officers.

        “I think this is an example of what will become commonplace in the next decade,” says the Rev. Dr. Sam Roberson, general presbyter of the Presbytery of Cincinnati. “It requires us to be a little more cooperative, a little more sharing. It challenges us to live out the Gospel mission a little more.”

        More than 50 years ago, a group started from scratch the Indian Hill Episcopal-Presbyterian Church, but the Rev. Dr. Roberson says there are no other instances statewide of a merger of two existing congregations of different denominations.

        This merger could become a model for other small churches grappling with high maintenance bills or low attendance.

        “This is an excellent solution,” says the Rev. Ralph Quellhorst, Ohio conference minister for the United Church of Christ. “This is an illustration where congregations can join together to present a united image of what the Protes tant traditions are really about.”

        Merging the two congregations required compromise. For instance, the ruling body will be called a council/session to reflect both denominations. Fifty percent of the members and mission money is earmarked as United Church of Christ; the other half goes to the Presbyterian Church (USA).

        Alphabetical order settled the new name, St. John's Westminster Union Church.

        Other issues require patience.

        “They've got pictures. We've got pictures. They've got two hymnals; we've got two,” says Eileen Findlay, a Delhi Township resident who attended Westminster for 17 years. “We need four hymnals like we need a hole in our head.”

        A spate of committees — from worship and programs to finances and facilities — is working out the details.

        Plans call for renovating St. John's on Neeb Road, adding new lighting, sound and a screen for PowerPoint presentations like the kind given regularly at Westminster. Easter — March 31 — is the target to complete renovations. Then both congregations will move worship to St. John's, and Westminster will go up for sale.

        A search committee with members from each congregation is collecting resumes for a new pastor, either United Church of Christ or Presbyterian. A 1999 Formula of Agreement allows the denominations to share ordained clergy.

        Members recognize they are in uncharted territory.

        “If you ask me a year from now, I'll tell you how it works,” says Gene Ruehlmann, newly elected president of the council/session.

        “Hopefully our union church will prosper and be able to fulfill our Christian mission, to serve our God and to be of service not only to members of the congregation but also to the community.”

        A few years ago, the future for both congregations was uncertain.

        St. John's had a nice facility with plenty of room to grow but dwindling attendance and an aging membership. Without dramatic change, the church likely would have been closed in the next five to six years.

        Westminster boasted thriving youth and music programs, but its facility needed major repairs and was landlocked. Members faced scaling back on programs to sink money into a massive building program.

        Neither church liked its prospects. Leaders began talking, moving slowly to make sure the congregations supported unification.

        After all, for many families, church is not just a place they go on Sunday mornings. It's home.

        Consider Bob Murphy, who has sat on the pews of St. John's for as long as he can remember. He was born into the congregation, and now his 8-year-old daughter, Chrissie, attends with him.

        Two miles away at Westminster, banners made by Larry Findlay's first wife still hang on the wall. She died in 1983. He met his second wife, Eileen, in the fellowship hall, and they married in the sanctuary.

        People have “blood, sweat and tears there. For our people, this is leaving home,” says Mrs. Findlay. “But you've got to think about your purpose, which is to have a more vital church and to be worshipping the Lord, instead of worrying about which hymn books you're going to use.”


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